(CN) – A species of rainbow-colored fish and the streams it is found in across Virginia and West Virginia are both slated to receive federal wildlife protections by the Trump administration in response to litigation by conservation groups.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in proposed regulations set to be published in the Federal Register that the candy darter – which flaunts vivid orange, teal and red scales during breeding season – will be granted protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The agency also announced regulatory guidelines for designating 370 stream miles of the candy darter’s habitat as a critical, protected area.
Public comments and requests for public hearings will be reviewed for 60 days before the proposed protections for the streams are finalized, according to the agency’s report, while protections for the candy darter will go into effect in late December.
The Center for Biological Diversity, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Clinch Coalition and others petitioned the agency in 2010 to extend protection to the candy darter and announced soon after that the species had been lost from at least half its range.
“Nothing’s sweeter than imperiled animals finally getting help to avoid extinction, so we celebrate the candy darter receiving the Endangered Species Act’s lifesaving protections,” Tierra Curry, a scientist at the Center, said in a statement. “These colorful fish have disappeared from so many streams, but there’s still time to save them.”
From the original 35 known populations of candy darter, only 18 are known to have survived, and only five of those are considered to be very healthy, according to the Center.
The darters play a critical role in their habitat because they eat caddisfly and mayfly larvae and are in turn eaten by larger predators. They also support critical freshwater mussel reproduction by serving as hosts.
The darter was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1982. The Center sued in 2015 to get a court-binding date for a decision on protections.
“As long as its critical habitat is approved, this little fish will have a fighting chance to survive,” Curry said, adding that the candy darter continues to face threats from pollution in streams, trout stocking, and competition from and hybridization with other introduced species of darter.
Too much pollution can send silt and sediment into the spaces between the rocks where candy darters lay eggs and burrow for shelter.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed protection guidelines for the upper Kanawha River basin in the Virginias, where the darters are found, said public input is sought on efforts to re-establish wild populations in the darter’s historical habitats, including the use of safe harbor agreements as recovery tools. Such agreements require property owners to help increase a threatened species’ population, or enhance or restore its habitat.
The Center noted that White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery is trying to raise candy darters in captivity as a recovery effort, adding that while the southeast region of the country is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than anywhere else, it has recently lost more than 50 of those creatures to extinction.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman David Eisenhauer said the agency looks forward “to working with the states on non-regulatory approaches to engage landowners and other partners to collaboratively restore candy darter habitat and establish experimental populations — with the ultimate goal of recovering the species so it is no longer endangered.”